Why face-to-face events matter to a post-pandemic Arctic

Icelandic health authorities have now granted permission for a large-scale in-person Arctic Circle assembly to be held at the Harpa Conference Center in Reykjavik from October 14-17. With over 100 sessions and over 400 speakers, the event will be the first major international gathering on Arctic issues in nearly two years.

“Now we can come together again. Meet and network. Be there! ”Chairman of the Arctic Circle organization Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson tweeted last week.

Since its inaugural Assembly in 2013, the annual event in Reykjavik has billed itself as the largest circumpolar gathering, normally attended by over 2,000 participants from around 60 countries.

Over the past two decades, four major international Arctic conferences have emerged alongside increased global attention to issues such as climate change, natural resources, scientific cooperation and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Next after Reykjavik is Rovaniemi Arctic Spirit on November 16 and 17. The biannual conference in Finnish Lapland builds on the initial process that began in the late 1980s and led to the formal establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996.

“Pathways” is the hallmark of next year’s Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, northern Norway. Beginning on January 31, the rally will be, like the Rovaniemi conference, a hybrid event, with opportunities for people to connect digitally from anywhere.

Russia, the largest of all polar countries and current chairman of the Arctic Council, is set to hold its biannual Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg in March or early April 2022. Originally supposed to take place in the spring of this year, the high-profile event is tagged under the slogan “Arctic – Territory of Dialogue” and is expected to showcase the country’s achievements in navigation, industrialization and nature protection on the Northern Sea Route .


In person is essential

While the pandemic has fundamentally opened the door to online participation, virtual events are still far from satisfying the real reasons people want to attend Arctic conferences.

Researcher Beate Steinveg with UiT The Arctic University of Norway studied the actors and agendas of arctic policy by analyzing conference attendance, with particular emphasis on the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik and Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø.

Beate Steinveg. Photo: ITU

She says in-person participation is particularly important for educating non-Arctic state actors and others excluded from the Arctic Council.

“It is helpful to bring people from non-Arctic states to the Arctic so that they can see the region, conditions and societies for themselves,” says Steinveg.

With long distances and expensive tickets, traveling to meet and study different aspects of societies in the Far North requires resources and time beyond what most people have available. Going to a high-profile Arctic conference, however, offers both a unique glimpse of the North as well as an opportunity to speak informally one-to-one with a variety of knowledgeable speakers and decision-makers.

An important point to remember is that most Arctic policy makers do not live in the Arctic.

Newcomers suffer the most

Beate Steinveg says what has suffered the most from the pandemic is qualitative research in the social sciences with a lack of opportunities to conduct fieldwork and transnational research collaboration.

“While it is possible to maintain connections through digital platforms, it is almost impossible to establish new ones. Young researchers and those looking to establish themselves in a field or discipline, people starting new positions and so on have been lacking in this regard, ”says Steinveg.

The researcher underlines the importance of “hallway discussions” which are totally lost when attending online.

“Some conferences provide the ability for people to write questions in a chat, which are read by a moderator, but this is a much more static form of interaction than what you get in a live conference. person, ”says Beate Steinveg.

Arctic Circle places great importance on in-person presence. The “Harpa experience” with socialization and networking among participants is an important part of the conference. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Vaccine problem

As face-to-face conferencing returns after the pandemic, the coronavirus continues to challenge cross-border participation. While North America and most European countries are on track to open borders to vaccinated travelers by the end of fall, other countries and regions remain deeply troubled.

On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) suspended the approval process for Russia’s Sputnik V COVID vaccine, after several manufacturing violations were discovered during an inspection in the country earlier this year. None of the Russian vaccines currently provide a green pass for most European countries, which means that a participant at an Arctic conference will have to self-quarantine and undergo testing upon arrival.

Rovaniemi offers a hybrid event

In northern Finland, Markku Heikkilä is preparing for the Rovaniemi Arctic Spirit in mid-November. This year, the conference also marks the international launch of Finland’s presidency of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council.

Markku Heikkilä is Head of the Science Communication Unit at the Arctic Center of the University of Lapland. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

“It looks like the border between Finland and Russia won’t open much before our event. Talking about Barents without Russians is not a good thing. It’s a challenge, ”says Heikkilä.

He said the Foreign Ministry in Helsinki invited officials from the Nenets Autonomous Region in northern Russia, who will chair the Barents Regional Cooperation Council. “But we don’t know the outcome yet.”

Rovaniemi Arctic Spirit will be a hybrid event, offering those who cannot travel to attend online.

Markku Heikkilä notes that registration for the conference is still in its infancy, two months before the end. “Obviously a lot of people are still in a wait and see mode,” he says and adds: “The real conference and networking experience will only be for those who come to Rovaniemi in person. “

The organizers quickly concluded that a fully virtual conference would be of no use. “Random hallway meetings and discussions are of the utmost importance. How else can you build your networks, ”Heikkilä asks rhetorically.

“If we lose meetings with each other, we will finally lose the Arctic,” he concludes.

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